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Area climber found dead on California mountain

Family and friends are remembering Thomas (TJ) Bennett this week as an avid outdoorsman with a passion for mountain climbing.

Family and friends are remembering Thomas (TJ) Bennett this week as an avid outdoorsman with a passion for mountain climbing.

Bennett, 26, a Vancouver man with ties to Sechelt, was found dead by rescue crews on Thursday, April 1, on Mount Shasta in California.

Bennett and his climbing partner Mark Thomas, 26, of Berkeley, Calif. started the trek to the 4,700-metre summit on March 25.

At 9:04 a.m. on Sunday, March 28, the Siskiyou County Sheriff's Office received a 9-1-1 cell phone call from Thomas saying Bennett was experiencing altitude sickness, was suffering from ataxia (lack of co-ordination and balance) and was confused and disoriented. He said the wind was so strong that it was too dangerous for them to descend and they had spent the night on the mountain and had taken shelter by some rocks.

As rescue crews began to mobilize, a violent storm picked up, trapping the pair of climbers on the mountain. Thomas built a snow cave where the pair remained until Monday, March 29, when Thomas made the difficult decision to leave Bennett to try to climb down the mountain to safety.

It took Thomas 24 hours to hike from the snow cave to their base camp in near white-out conditions.

Rangers from the U.S. Forest Service located Thomas on Tuesday, March 30, and made further attempts to reach Bennett, but high winds and heavy snow prevented them from getting into the area.

On Thursday morning, weather conditions improved. According to Susan Gravenkamp, spokesperson with the Siskiyou County sheriff's office, shortly after nine a.m. on April 1, a seven-man team was off-loaded near the summit of Mount Shasta.

"At about 10:04 a.m., one of the Mountain Rangers found the snow cave that was marked with a black avalanche marker as described by Thomas," Gravenkamp said. "The rescuers dug into the snow cave and unfortunately found that Bennett had died. His body was airlifted off the mountain. His family had been waiting at the Weed Airport and learned of his death."

Bennett's mother, Mary Kenny of Sechelt, was in California along with his father and sister.

Bennett had recently moved to Oakland where he took a job as a chemical engineer.

Both Bennett and Thomas were said to be experienced climbers and had made many high-altitude climbs in the past.

In a media statement, Thomas Bennett Sr. said his son had a genuine love for the outdoors and a passion for mountain climbing and that he understood the risks, and as such, took all appropriate precautions to deal with those risks.

The autopsy to determine the cause of death was conducted on Tuesday, April 6.

"The cause of death was not determined and is pending further studies including toxicological testing and microscopic studies that could take up to six weeks to complete," Gravenkamp said. "As soon as these tests have been completed and the cause of death determined, the results will be released."

A funeral mass will be held on Friday, April 16, at 11 a.m. at Our Lady of Lourdes Church, at 5482 Chelti in Sechelt. A reception will follow; details not yet confirmed.

If you would like to donate in Bennett's memory, the family asks that you send a cheque (for any amount) to the Siskiyou County Sheriff's Department Search and Rescue Fund at 305 Butte St., Yreka, CA 96097. Write on your cheque in the memo section "Special Equipment Funds - In Memory of Tom Bennett."